Where Is Deconstruction Today?: On Jacques Derrida’s “Theory and Practice” and Byung-Chul Han’s “Shanzhai: Deconstruction in Chinese”
By Gregory Jones-KatzMay 8, 2019
Theory and Practice by Jacques Derrida
Shanzhai by Byung-Chul Han
Derrida’s statements ended up in Chinese newspapers and contributed to academic debates in China on the authority of “Chinese philosophy.” Though one can certainly appreciate why Derrida’s Shanghai remarks were received by some as outrageous, evidence elsewhere suggests a more complicated position on this issue. During a 1991 roundtable discussion in Paris on the international right to philosophy, Derrida cautioned against applying the term “philosophy” — which is derived from the Greek φιλοσοφία, a word with its own historical baggage — to non-European intellectual traditions. And yet, to go back further, Derrida does appear to employ an unexamined dualism between “the West” and “the East” in his texts. In 1976, Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, in her epic translator’s preface to Of Grammatology, noted that, because “the East is never seriously studied or deconstructed in the Derridean text,” it “name[d] […] the limits of the text’s knowledge.” Given his deconstructions of ethnocentrism, Derrida’s failure “to deconstruct” the East/West binary in Of Grammatology and in Shanghai thus remains perplexing. Byung-Chul Han, in a recently translated essay, offers a companion view to the question of where philosophy and its deconstruction occurs. The South Korean–born German philosopher states that “Chinese philosophy is deconstructivist from the outset,” adding, “Far Eastern thought begins with deconstruction.” For Han, not only is there Chinese philosophy and “Far Eastern” thought, but they have been deconstructive since their very inception. How should we square these different views of deconstruction’s role in the world and if this affects how deconstruction is “applied to” or “accessed” by certain countries today?
Derrida’s recently available Theory and Practice offers opportunities to begin pondering this question through a lens of Marxist discourse. Published in 2019 by The University of Chicago Press, edited by Geoffrey Bennington and Peggy Kamuf, and translated by David Wills from Derrida’s manuscript for his 1976–’77 seminar at the École Normale Supérieure (E.N.S.), the volume shows Derrida exploring the theory/practice dichotomy as it operated in Marxist philosophy, qualifying his focus with: “If we were to look today for the specifically philosophical field in which the theory/practice opposition remains active, invested, deemed useful, pertinent, it would indeed seem to be within a philosophical discourse of the Marxian or Marxist tradition.” For Anglophone readers who view deconstruction as a set of arguments about language and literature or see Derrida’s early 1990s exploration of Marxism as weak and belated, Theory and Practice is enlightening. Rather than taking, as many observers have claimed, a decades-long “hiatus” from Marx, between his lecture “La Différance” (1968), which conspicuously withheld any mention of the philosopher, and his conjuring of Marx in Spectres de Marx (1993), Derrida’s E.N.S. lectures show him meticulously extending his deconstructive project to the Marxist philosophical tradition.
The talks had undoubtedly been informed by Derrida’s milieu. The Marxist understanding of practice was part “of a very politically charged atmosphere in the period following” the May 1968 protests. These protests, instigated by students’ objections to capitalism and American imperialism, briefly froze France’s economy and threatened to remove de Gaulle from power. Afterward, French intellectuals more than ever felt the demand to reckon with Marx. Surely the topic’s sensitivity informed the shape of Derrida’s confrontation in his E.N.S. seminar with the work of Louis Althusser, a party member and E.N.S. philosophy professor whom the French Communist Party censured in 1966 for “corrupting the youth.” As for Derrida, he recalled in the 1989 interview “Politics and Friendship,” that “the social space” at the E.N.S. in the 1960s did not let him “engage […] Althusser and his students,” a number of whom were increasingly oriented to Maoism. While Derrida did explore topics he felt Althusser ignored — Althusser was a mentor and hardly prohibited such work — it was not until Derrida’s 1976–’77 seminar that he openly grappled with Marxian philosophical tradition.
During this seminar, Derrida highlighted the “theoretical” and “practical” ethnocentric metaphysical dualism that constituted a philosophical principle in several Marxist texts, a convention established in Marx’s “Theses on Feuerbach.” For example, while reading Marx’s 11th Thesis, where Marx declared that “[p]hilosophers have hitherto only interpreted the world in various ways; the point is to change it,” Derrida suggested that Marx called for “a revolutionary practice,” which would “mark the end of philosophy” and a “theory/practice” which, “without rejecting, suppressing, exceeding, destroying the philosophical,” would be “a practical revolutionary transformation of philosophy.” Derrida then proceeded to pinpoint how important Marxists responded to Marx’s contradictory imperatives, how they aimed to establish a “practice” of philosophy, but ended up subverting their own goals, articulating a “theory” of philosophy as well. Early in the seminar, for instance, Derrida considered Antonio Gramsci’s critique of Benedetto Croce’s reading of Marx’s 11th Thesis. For Derrida, Gramsci’s reading of Croce, as a speculative interpretation, upheld a Marxist philosophy, albeit one of praxis.
However, the most significant moments of Derrida’s engagement with Marxian readings of Marx’s contradictory imperatives occurred during his seminar’s middle sessions when he examined Althusser’s texts, including “On the Materialist Dialectic” (1963), the preface to For Marx (1965), and Lenin and Philosophy (1968). Derrida’s Althusser also intended to escape “Western” philosophical convention and constructed a “theory” of how to practice philosophy that reached beyond mere speculation. When Althusser defined “the Marxist project of a new practice of philosophy,” Derrida summarized, Althusser’s discourse was “no longer simply that of philosophy defined or situating itself,” but “itself also […] a political gesture, a practice.” According to Derrida, Althusser’s Marxist project was thus no longer purely theoretical, closed in on itself and apart from so-called social contexts. And although Althusser, in texts from the first half of the 1970s, came to criticize what he deemed his earlier “erroneous tendency” of theoreticism and his habit of effacing praxis, Derrida insisted that even Althusser’s post-1960s definition of philosophy was “produced by and within a project of Marxist philosophy.” That is, Althusser’s speculations, though indicating or decoding historical struggles, skirted the edge of — one might say “deconstructed” (though Derrida did not) — the ethnocentric metaphysical theory/practice dualism. His was a Marxian practice that remained philosophical.
Derrida’s reflections on how the theory/practice dichotomy operated in philosophical texts then led him to the writings of German philosopher Martin Heidegger. Derrida opined to students the lack of a “satisfactory Marxist reading of Heidegger,” despite having approvingly cited Greek-French philosopher Kostas Axelos’s work on the topic in Of Grammatology. Regardless, if the Marxist philosophical tradition was, as Derrida suggested, exceptionally invested in the theory/practice metaphysical dualism, then the remainder of Derrida’s 1976–’77 E.N.S. seminar should be read as a Marxist interpretation of Heidegger, a philosopher who also attempted “to destroy” the ethnocentric hierarchical opposition between theory and practice. Ultimately, Derrida read Heidegger’s texts, like Althusser’s, as performing “the edging across which philosophy overflows as it hems itself in”; Heidegger’s act of destruction reconstructed the theory/practice dichotomy, remaining within while also subverting the “Western” philosophical tradition.
In his seminar’s fifth session, for instance, Derrida highlighted Heidegger’s praise, in his “Letter on Humanism” (1947), of Marx for affirming that “every being appears as the material of labor.” Yet, Derrida glossed, Heidegger also stressed that due to Marx’s acceptance of the traditional philosophical notion of labor, Marx repeated the metaphysical opposition between theory and practice. Marx’s productionist metaphysics, Heidegger argued, was because Marx did not think through “[t]he essence of dialectical materialism,” an essence that “cannot be understood without reference to the essence of technique.” According to Heidegger, in the philosophical tradition instituted by Plato and Aristotle, the act of thinking — or tekhnē — is considered to be at the “service of praxis and poiēsis, of doing and making, of producing.” And, for Heidegger, in response to Plato’s and Aristotle’s philosophy of thinking as praxis and poiēsis, “the essence of thinking,” the supposed opposite of tekhnē, came “to be determined as theōria.” In other words, while thinking became technique, the essence of thinking became equated with theory or philosophy. Reinforcing the post-Platonic philosophical tradition, the theory/practice metaphysical dualism therefore shaped Marx’s formulations about the relation between being and labor; Marx recognized that each being was the consequence of labor, but treated labor as the result of a measurable technique. Marx was unable to escape the productionist metaphysics and its hierarchical opposition between theory and practice that he initially seemed able to break free from.
During his seminar’s last three sessions, Derrida further explored ways in which the theory/practice ethnocentric dualism functioned in Heidegger’s texts. For example, in “The Question Concerning Technology” (1954), Heidegger aimed to uncover, as Derrida summarized, “the essential articulation or mediation” of the theory/practice metaphysical opposition, which, behind the technical determination established by Plato and Aristotle, was “the origin common to both terms.” For Derrida, however, it was now Heidegger, poised at the borders of theory or metaphysics, who “repeat[ed] more or less […] the very thing” that Heidegger himself had questioned. This was so for complicated reasons, one being Heidegger’s etymological method, which valorized precision and faithfulness to original ancient Greek words. Derrida pointed out that Heidegger’s approach was itself a kind of calculated technique, surpassing but at the same time duplicating the “Western” metaphysical dichotomy between theory and practice.
According to Derrida’s reading, Heidegger’s unintentional reintroduction of theory/practice dualism during his “destructive” efforts to uncover a pre-Platonic technique also led Heidegger to subvert his own philosophy. In his 1954 essay, for instance, Heidegger used the example of the constitutive relationship between silversmith and chalice. He, Derrida glossed, underscored
the activity of the Überlegen [Heidegger read this word to indicate something like "bring about by reflecting"] by which the silversmith […] gathered the three modes of causality — hylē [matter], eidos [form], telos [purpose] — on the basis of which the chalice obtains its first emergence […] in terms of both appearing and entering into play in the production […] of the chalice.
Heidegger himself, though, stressed that a fourth cause, the silversmith, unified the three gathered causes of the chalice and that this fourth cause constituted “something like an alterity” within the chalice’s bringing-forth. If this fourth cause comprised an “alterity,” then Heidegger undermined his own case for the chalice’s unified production, and he subverted his attempted “destruction” of the metaphysical dualism between theory and practice.
The remainder of Theory and Practice becomes rather difficult to follow. And this is somewhat due to David Wills’s inclusion of Derrida’s notes, ellipses, and indications of missing conversations between Derrida and students. Still, the seminar closes by providing readers access to Derrida’s interpretation of Heidegger’s probing of “modern technique,” specifically his argument, also made in “The Question Concerning Technology,” that modern technology transformed poiēsis, for instance the silversmith’s bringing-forth of the chalice, into a provoking-forth, a productionist metaphysics that “grabs, requires, violently extracts and accumulates.” Derrida additionally raised the issue of modern technique in relation to psychoanalytic practice and the “question of theoretico-practical technique” more broadly. The broaching of these topics allowed Derrida to end his seminar with tantalizing hints at how efforts to philosophize a way outside — to exceed — the theory/practice pair also retained, like Althusser’s and Heidegger’s texts, and remained “internal” to “Western” metaphysical dualisms.
Distant echoes of Derrida’s 1976–’77 deconstructions of the theory/practice opposition reverberate throughout the slim Shanzhai (2017, translated by Philippa Hurd) by Byung-Chul Han, a cultural theorist and lecturer at the Berlin University of the Arts. In fact, though Han only cites Derrida once, Shanzhai helps us explore whether or not deconstruction occurs solely in the “West.” Though Han's work may be undervalued by deconstructionists and Sinologists alike, there is a key to appreciating his texts: that is, his confession to Ronald Düker that “China is just an alibi, another model for thinking and being-in-the-world.” For his approach to “deconstruction in Chinese” (Shanzhai’s subtitle) is not inspired by what Derrida identified in Of Grammatology as the ethnocentric illusion that Chinese script, because it is ostensibly free of voice and history, was a model for philosophical language. Rather, Han’s “China” is a heuristic, used to accomplish goals similar to Derrida’s: encourage readers to adopt the deconstructive techniques that he finds in Chinese culture and thought in order to subvert ethnocentric metaphysical oppositions, above all those that privilege the original, the origin, and identity over copy, supplement, and difference. It is unfortunate that in his pursuit, Han ends up essentializing “China” and the “Far East,” conflating Chinese and Japanese traditions, and anachronistically projecting the ideas and vocabulary of Western deconstruction into Chinese thought. Nevertheless, his thought experiment is intriguing, and it serves to further understand deconstruction’s place in the world today.
Han uses broad brush strokes to paint a web of ancient traditions and cultural practices that comprise his Chinese model of thinking and acting. These traditions and practices include: “Chinese Buddhism,” which erodes trust in notions, such as “immutability and constancy,” that determine “Western ideas of both moral subjectivity and normative objectivity”; “Chinese philosophy,” which “is deconstructivist from the outset,” as it “breaks radically with Being and essence”; and “Chinese awareness of time and history,” which, because it “does not recognize the kind of identity that is based on a unique event,” considers ruptures or revolutions foreign. Most significant perhaps is Han’s portrayal of “China” not as subversive stricto sensu, but simply supple and adaptive, situational and contextual; in a word: pragmatic. Unfortunately, though Han is steeped in European philosophical and literary traditions, he does not mine the writings of American pragmatists to develop this insight. Instead, he extends European deconstructive notions onto “the Far East” without alerting his readers and marks “China” as a lens through which to interpret “Western” philosophical dichotomies. In this way, “China,” for Han, becomes non-metaphysical.
For instance, in his readings of Chinese ancient paintings, Han suggests that Chinese cultural practices, neither pre- nor post-metaphysical, do not perform “deconstructions” of metaphysical ethnocentric dualisms, like the theory/practice dichotomy in the sense that Derrida identified. He states that “[t]he Far East is not familiar with such pre-deconstructive factors as original, origin, or identity,” but rather, that it started with deconstruction. Here, Han could have dug into ancient Chinese thought: Laozi’s Dao De Jing, a sixth-century BCE text that serves as a foundation for the Chinese religious system of Daoism, contains passages that explore the role of binary oppositions, demonstrating that only when one opposite is acknowledged does its other come into play. Han, though, turns to the example of the Chinese artist’s oeuvre, which he argues is not a matter of transcendent substance or stable authorship. He points out that forgeries or replicas, say produced in the Ming Dynasty (1368–1644), define the oeuvre of Dong Yuan (934–962). “The subsequent or retrospective defines the origin. Thus the inversion deconstructs it.” Chinese artistic customs as well, Han also implies, are outside metaphysical dichotomies (and what Derrida called their “deconstruction”), because “Chinese Culture uses a different technique that operates using inclusion and immanence.” If, like the Chinese, one does not have the forgery (that is, the original opposition), then the Western act of exalting authenticity — Chang Dai-chien’s copies passed as “authentic” in a 1956 Parisian exhibition of Chinese art before being discovered as “fake” — is irrational. Without the ethnocentric hierarchy between masterwork and counterfeit, Chinese art and artistic practice are simply products of “process and change.”
One of Han’s more memorable examples of “deconstruction in Chinese” is actually not Chinese at all. Han points to the Ise Grand Shrine, in Japan, which is 1,300 years old and rebuilt every two decades, a process that, from the standpoint of “Western” metaphysical dualisms, overturns the difference between original and copy. From the Japanese perspective, however, the Ise Shrine’s reproducibility is outside of the original/copy dichotomy. This non-metaphysical use of the shrine has even led to resistance to registering it as a UNESCO world heritage site; such a listing implies, from the European stance, that the shrine is unique and singular, an expression of a philosophy or metaphysics. The Ise Grand Shrine is a fascinating example, but it is unclear how the Shinto religion, which inspired the Shrine, factors into Han’s speculation.
Han more persuasively illustrates the non-metaphysical nature of Eastern art with the poignant example of Chinese “seal stamps.” Han stresses the European tradition of signing a painting aims to complete and fix unique authorial presences. In contrast, he argues, because Chinese culture treats art as “a communicative, interactive practice that constantly changes even the artwork’s appearance,” Chinese seal stamps perform and exemplify a painting’s shifting, non-metaphysical character. For example, Wang Fu’s (1362–1416) painting, Farewell Meeting at Feng-ch’eng, “depicts a beautiful mountain landscape with a pavilion where friends are celebrating his farewell. Each friend adds a poem to the landscape picture with a seal stamp.” In distinction to Wang Fu’s open practice in which multiple authors collaborate, Han holds up Jan van Eyck’s practice. In his The Arnolfini Portrait (1434), van Eyck employed the typically European metaphysical approach to art: in the center of the oil painting, the artist signed, inscribed, and dated the origin: himself — a transcendent sign of his authorship.
But Han’s most successful use of China as an “alibi” might be during his consideration of “shanzhai,” the Chinese neologism for “fake.” Initially, there were only shanzhai cell phones, fakes “sold under names such as Nokir, Samsing, or Anycat.” Today, however, shanzhai is a “genuinely Chinese phenomenon,” a cultural tradition that “encompasses all areas of life in China.” While to Western eyes, they deceive, a shanzhai product, Han argues, is actually the result of a practice that exploits “the situation’s potential,” demonstrating creativity; shanzhai products are at once pragmatic and non-metaphysical. Certainly, some shanzhai are modeled on an original, but shanzhai “products depart from the original, until they mutate into originals themselves […] Adidas becomes Adidos, Adadas, Adadis, Adis, Dasida, and so on.” Shanzhai products thus illustrate what Han views as Chinese modes of thinking and acting that undermine the metaphysical dualisms in which the origin, the original, and identity are privileged. Such analyses are stimulating, if rather divergent from deconstruction of ancient Chinese thought. Instead, they lend themselves toward Han’s own interests in art theory and contemporary culture. But this tendency to insert his personal views leads to the text’s most interesting claim and offers further proof, perhaps, that deconstruction can never operate as a practice separated from theory.
It is in Shanzhai’s last pages that Han finally puts his cards on the table. “[T]he West,” Han recaps, views shanzhai as instances of “deception, plagiarism, and the infringement of intellectual property.” But he now underlines that such judgments (which are the result of embracing metaphysical oppositions) hinder ingenuity and resourcefulness, values that Han exalts. China’s shanzhai practices simply make the best of what is around. Han hopes that in this way deconstruction in China may even produce shanzhai forms of Chinese politics, such as a shanzhai democracy. Regardless whether this might occur or not, from Han’s perspective, China’s shanzhai movement uses non-metaphysical practices that “could release deconstructive energies,” energies that subvert global capitalist theories of ownership and authenticity, theories shaped by “Western” philosophy. Extrapolating from Derrida’s standpoint, however, Han’s exhortation to adopt a Chinese deconstructive way of thinking and acting is itself a metaphysical claim; escaping philosophy through the types of romanticized devotion to “practice” that Han sees in “China” is a “theory,” a philosophy of praxis, even, that he projects onto Chinese thought and culture wholesale.
Still, Han’s little book encourages further investigations into the drama that is “deconstruction in Chinese” as much as it helps us think about the place of deconstruction in the world today. This is especially the case now that, while its heyday in literary studies in the United States is past, its relevance for literary critics and scholars in China increases and its importance for philosophers and activists in the United States interested in thinking about the theory/practice opposition remains. In an article that continues to solicit responses at home and abroad, Zhang Jiang, vice president of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, argued that Western literary theories have been too uncritically and too rapidly imported; 32 variations of the word “deconstruction” pepper the piece. If Jiang considers deconstructive literary theories as a fairly-easy-to-identify import, however, Bianca Bosker views deconstructively tinged architectural mimicry in present-day China as particularly difficult for philosophers and theorists to appreciate, as they often fail to recognize the reasons the Chinese simulate iconic buildings from Europe and the United States.
Other avenues of research into contemporary sites of deconstruction might start by asking: How does what Han views as non-metaphysical Chinese deconstructive practices affect our understanding of Derrida’s deconstruction of “Western” metaphysical dualisms? And doesn’t consideration of “China” as non-metaphysical repeat the ethnocentric dualism of East/West? To begin to answer these questions, however, will likely require leaving behind the Heideggerian baggage that gives so much ballast to Han’s and Derrida’s work. It is not just that Han completed his dissertation on Heidegger at the University of Freiburg in 1994 and that Heidegger himself was Derrida’s intellectual interlocutor after Heidegger’s 1965–’66 E.N.S. seminar. Heidegger’s conceptual framework and its attendant vocabulary, oriented toward identifying “Western” metaphysics, tends to repeats dualisms.
Help for such future work might be found in the writings of American pragmatists, leading analysis and narrative beyond “the West” and “the Far East,” an antiquated metaphysical dualism that obscures more than it illuminates. The groundbreaking work of Haun Saussy and Zhang Longxi will likely be indispensable as well. Longzi, in The Tao and the Logos (1992), argued that Daoist philosophy is susceptible to Derrida’s “deconstruction” and, more generally, that similarities can be found between Chinese and Western literatures. Saussy, in a 2000 article, “Outside the Parenthesis (Those People Were a Kind of Solution),” not only explored French intellectuals’ fantasies of Chinese thought and culture as non-hierarchical and thus outside “Western” metaphysics, as in the writings of Julia Kristeva’s, Michel Foucault’s, Philippe Sollers’s from the late 1960s and early 1970s, but also showed that such representations of China as “Other” were rhetorical creations that conveyed more about the contexts of their creation than China itself. Accordingly, Han’s Shanzhai and the thrust of its thesis could be read as the latest discourse by a long line of intellectuals who project dreams onto China and in light of Americans’ and Europeans’ attempts to grapple with China’s reemergence as a global power.
Significantly, Han’s leap from ancient Chinese texts to shanzhai cell phones will continue to be problematic for potential studies on deconstruction. Even if, as Han suggests, classical Chinese thought is deconstructive, the relationship between this ancient manner of deconstruction and present-day cultural practices requires more scrutiny. And although Han may be using Western ideas to “discover” deconstruction in China, it is also possible that deconstruction is truly a global phenomenon, one with common roots stretching back to the Axial Age.
Gregory Jones-Katz is an American cultural historian. He earned his PhD from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and is currently a lecturer at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, Shenzhen. Jones-Katz’s work has been published in Raritan, Boston Review, and Derrida Today.
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